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Director of Duke University Press steps down after decades working in the press's leadership

Courtesy of Duke Today

When Steve Cohn became director of Duke University Press in 1993, he inherited a financial mess.  

Cohn replaced former director Lawrence Malley, who resigned when the University revealed that the press needed nearly five times as much in subsidies as was budgeted.

Now, after reviving the press to be financially “solid,” Cohn will retire after 25 years of service in various leadership roles within the press in June 2019, when a five-year term expires. 

“It has been a wild ride—sometimes wonderfully challenging, sometimes challenging to the point where I had no idea how we’d make it through—but in the end a very successful one,” Cohn wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

Provost Sally Kornbluth has created a search committee to help find a new director. The committee will be headed by Joshua Sosin, associate professor of classical studies. 

“Steve has been a dedicated leader and tireless advocate for the press, steadily increasing the number of books and journals it publishes, while enhancing its reputation for quality and intellectual risk-taking,” Kornbluth said in the news release.

Cohn wrote to The Chronicle that in his time, the press has become “famous for publishing work that is at the same time intellectually rigorous and boldly adventurous--even daring.”

The press employs 120 people and publishes about that many books and 60 journals—primarily in humanities and social sciences—per year. Among all university presses in the United States, It has the most international catalog of published books and journals, according to Duke Today. And, though most university presses’ revenues mostly come from books, the situation is flipped at Duke—60 percent of its revenue comes from journals. In 2014, Cohn’s press launched an e-book platform for its journals and books. 

“The financial strength of our journals program enables us to have a very scholarly book program,” Cohn told Duke Today in July. “It’s nearly impossible for a serious scholarly book publishing program to support itself through book sales alone.”

In stepping down, Cohn—now 70—said he was fulfilling a promise to his wife. Five years ago, his wife had urged him to retire while he was still physically active. Cohn said he was getting too much satisfaction from the job to retire at that point, but vowed to retire at the end of the term. 

Cohn said he is not sure of what retirement will bring.  

“I know that the first thing I’ll need to do is figure out who I am when I am not the Director of Duke University Press,” Cohn wrote. “I’ve been that for more than half of my working life, and I’ve been in management positions at Duke University Press for well over half of my entire life.”

But Cohn plans to put more time into leading the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, of which he is president. Ellerbe Creek flows through Durham, and ECWA cares for the creek's watershed. 

“It needs a lot of love and care from Durham’s citizens to be the wonderful natural resource for Durham that it can be,” Cohn wrote.